Pastel Pointers | When Memory Gets in the Way

During a recent visit to the Goleta Slough in California, I noticed that the bank of eucalyptus trees that lines the crest of the coastal cliffs to the east had changed. In many parts of the state there’s a movement to eradicate the trees since they aren’t native to the region. Conversely, California in recent years has been experiencing one of the worst droughts in recorded history. Whatever the cause of the stress, the trees are definitely showing signs of strain. Many are bare, exposing the gnarled trunks and branches that once were full of fragrant leaves.


Cliffs of Goleta (pastel, 12×18) by Richard McKinley was painted en plein air on Canson Mi-Teintes Touch paper.


When I first visited the slough many years ago, I couldn’t help but see why so many artists have been drawn to the area to paint. The view south looking down the Gold Coast of California is spectacular. The interplay of the slough as it meanders into the Pacific Ocean is impressive, and the gap between the eucalyptus trees across the slough—with the distant mountains that loom above Santa Barbara—is enthralling. While all of this was well worth painting, it was the tiny break at the top of the cliff where a ridge line road had entry that caught my attention. Something about the silhouette of the ridge line and abstract interaction of the bare cliffs and vegetation just begged to be painted. Since that initial visit, I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to paint there every year in the spring. Occasionally, another view calls to me, but there’s always at least one painting to be done of the ridge line.

Shifting Perspectives: Having in my memory a picture of the trees in their full glory, I was at first disturbed to see them looking stressed; there was an ugliness about them. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that it was my memories of the past that were clouding my perceptions. The trees were different, true, but if I had been seeing them for the first time, I would have found them attractive. Instead of forgoing the ridge line, I decided to shift my typical vantage point for the composition and instead feature more of the gnarled limbs that were now visible. At first it was just an exercise in working with what was there, but as the painting progressed, I became enamored with the scene all over again.





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